Day 2- January 14, 2015
What a day! Today was all intensive farm visit day, and we packed in as much as we could. We started early with breakfast at the Menendez’s house, which is always a treat. The Menendez, more than any other family that I have met at origin, are the most gracious hosts. For the 6th year in a row, they started my day with a hefty portion of huevos a la ranchera and some refried beans. We set off around 10, much later that Miguel would have liked, and he reminded us all day, “C’mon! Hurry up! We’re gonna be late!” His kids and wife, however, operate on El Salvador time, and just laugh at his rushing antics.
Our first destination today was to Buena Vista farm, where the bulk of our direct trade coffee comes from. Buena Vista was inherited from Lisette’s side of the family, and she loves visiting there. Over the past three years Buena Vista has been really badly hit by Rust. In 2012, when Rust first arrived in force in El Salvador, everyone here was taken by surprise. Even though Miguel keeps his farms in really great shape, this aggressive strain of rust was more than he could handle, and he lost close to 70% of his crop. The past three years have been a long, uphill battle against Leaf Rust. I am really excited to report, however, that the farm is back looking like it did pre-Rust. This was achieved by aggressive fumigation against Rust as well as a huge overhaul of old trees on the farm. Buena Vista used to be 100% Bourbon trees, but Miguel has started to plant some Castillo varietals, which are Rust resistant, at the lower elevations. Rust hits harder at lower elevations, and also is very easily spread from surrounding farms. Having these young Castillo trees as a barrier against these two threats will make his management of the higher elevation Bourbons much easier in the future (at least, that is the theory). The Menendez have done a great job in fighting back against Rust, but have also noted that the Rust that is plaguing Central America is not like any rust that they have seen in the past. One used to be able to spray once against Rust, and then it was gone. Miguel has seen, however, with thisstrain, that the Rust keeps coming back no matter what he does. He is operating under the assumption that Rust is here to stay. It makes it hard to stay committed to high quality varietals that are susceptible to rust under conditions such as these, but Miguel, so far, has been willing to make the investment to fight Rust as well as maintain the high quality of his coffee.
After a nice hike though Buena Vista we drove up to the very top of Las Delicias, the prized jewel of the Menendez’s farms. Las Delicias has always produced exception coffees, due in part to its high altitude (1,800 meters at the top) as well as its rich volcanic soil. Las Delicias grows a combination of Bourbon, Pacamara, Geisha, and a yet-unnamed Bourbon mutation which is extremely intriguing. The view from the top of Las Delicias is always a little breathtaking (literally and figuratively). At the top, the view stretches down the steep slopes to the Ilantepec valley below. In the distance you can see at least three volcanoes, as well as the borders of Guatemala and Honduras. Above the highest point of the farm is an untouched rainforest, and at the top a cratered lake full of frogs, called, appropriately, Frog Lake. It is a very, very special place. From the top we hiked down through the whole farm from top to bottom, looking at the different stages of Pacamara plants that Miguel has growing on the farm. The farm is so intricately managed, and Miguel is able to point out individual trees, their characteristics, and how they came to be that way. It is a real testament to how hands on he is, even after having worked these farms for over 40 years.
Thoroughly exhausted, we collapsed once we arrived back at Piedra Grande mill and recharged with sandwiches and coffee. The rest of the afternoon we spent cupping coffee, watching various lots get dumped and pulped, and finally, laid out to dry on the open patio space. We got to cup some really special coffees today, too many to count. Mostly, Christian and I enjoyed our company and took advantage of the whole afternoon with Miguel to talk about his farm, investments he has made, and his plans for the future. Over the past couple of years, all of Miguel’s efforts have been focused around fighting Rust and replanting old trees so that they are stronger and more resistant. Last year he switched to 3 new fungicides than what he has been using in the past, and while they are more expensive, they are also more effective, and do not have to be sprayed on the trees quite as often. He has also planted over 90,000 new Caturra trees around his farms. Next year, he hopes to improve the houses of the managers who live on each of his farms. Miguel understands that it is very important for the quality of his coffee to attract and retain the best workers that he can. He has invested in all points in the labor chain for his coffee, and the commitment of the people who work for him is extremely visible. He would also like to work on the roads that connect his farms and mill to the main road out of Atiquizaya. This is a considerable investment, but would allow him to access his farms more easily, as well as send large trucks to pick up coffee, and when needed, transport pickers to the far reaches of his farms. Miguel has a solid plan for what he would like to invest in, something that is always so refreshing for me to be able to report on.
In other news on the farm, Miguel has been able to process his coffee more cleanly and efficiently, which has eliminated the need for a second washing of the coffee after it is depulped. Because of this, he estimates that he has cut down the electricity use of the wet mill by around 50% and the water usage by about 25%. These are huge improvements on a farm that is already environmentally conscious. We love hearing about these kinds of changes that our farmers are making, and can’t wait to see what the future brings to the Menendez!
We wrapped up our day, of course, with a hefty serving of pupusas and great conversation. We are very excited to get the coffee from this harvest, which will be available to enjoy around May, 2015!